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How Church Government Became What It Is

In the Scriptures, "church government" is simple. Each church had a group of elders who shepherded the church and were called overseers (Gr. episkopos, usually translated, ecclesiastically, as bishop).


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If we discuss very early Christian history, when the churches were small, then the elder/overseer role stays easy. Western churches, such as Rome and Philippi maintained the multiple overseer pattern we see in Paul and Peter's churches.

Overseers and Elders

It appears to me that John's churches (those in Asia Minor, of which the 7 in Rev. 2-3 are examples) had a group of elders of which one and one only was the overseer (explanation here).

By the mid-second century, all churches had adopted that pattern.

It is then that church government begins to be complicated. The churches in major cities may have been quite big by then, and if they weren't by AD 150, they certainly were by AD 200.

How did church government expand to accomodate that growth? I'm not sure of all the details, but the general picture is clear.

In a big city, in the third century, there would have been multiple overseers (bishops). I'm pretty sure early in the third century, there would be one  main overseer over the city, and minor overseers in the smaller towns who in some way reported to the city's overseer, who was now called a "metropolitan."

Underneath these overseers were the elders.


Elders (Gr. presbuteros) began to be called "priests" in the mid-third century. That is often linked to the fact that presbuteros became presbyter in Latin and gained the meaning of priest. That seems very unlikely to me.

It makes much more sense that as the western churches (Rome, north Africa except Egypt, and barbarian Europe) switched to Latin, they transliterated presbuteros to presbyter. There is no reason that presbyter should have lost its meaning as elder at that time.

Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (modern Libya) from 249-258, used the Latin word for priest, sacerdos, often. Obviously, he applied presbyter and sacerdos to the same persons, but why would the two words have exactly the same meaning? Much more likely is that Cyprian sometimes called them elders and sometimes called them priests. Only by long equating of the two did the church forget that presbyter connoted the position of elder.

Personally, I think that when translators render third and fourth century fathers' use of presbyter as priest, they are making a mistake and doing us a disfavor. They should be rendering presbyter as "elder," the word's meaning in Greek, and only sacerdos as priest. That would distinguish the two words in English as well as Latin, and such a translation could hardly be faulted.


It seems likely, but I don't know for certain, that there were smaller congregations in the city that were led by one of the elders or maybe more than one. All the elders in the city would consider the metropolitan as their overseer/bishop.

Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.
Public domain image.

It also seems likely that surrounding towns had multiple elders plus their overseer, who was submitted to the metropolitan.

By the late 3rd century, and confirmed at the Council of Nicea in the early 4th century, three metropolitans were given the status of "patriarch." They weren't called patriarchs at the council, but the position apart from the name was officially recognized and approbated at that time. These were metropolitans that led the synods of bishops of entire countries: Alexandria over Egypt and Libya; Rome over Italy, Carthage, and Spain (and probably the Germanic kingdoms); and Antioch with "similar" authority (Canon 6).

The fall of the western Roman empire left the Roman patriarch as the only patriarch in the west. It didn't take long for him to gain authority over all the churches and the spiritual subservience of the "Christian" kings of the barbarians. At that point, the Roman patriarch's enamor with his own authority inevitably led to the doctrine of papal primacy.

How Many Elders per Congregation

One of the things I've been asked is whether smaller congregations in one city would have been led by multiple elders, or did each congregation have one elder that made up the plurality of elders in that city.

I do not know the answer to that question. I have never seen it addressed. So, if you run across an authoritative answer, please use the "contact me" button in the navbar and let me know. I'm speaking of the situation during the third century.

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